Oh to have a bed. That whole Great Outdoors thing is all very well but we appreciated mattresses sheets and pillows last night. After a strangely western breakfast of Cornflakes and Nescafé (not in the same bowl, obviously) we set of for Bahla fort, the oldest in Oman.
There’s been a fort here for three thousand years but it took quite a beating in various battles over the last few hundred and when it was restored it took two years just to dig the rubble out. It is a huge labyrinthine complex and not a place for anyone with a fear of bats.
They perch in any gloomy corner, and in a mediaeval fortress there are many, many gloomy corners. We got used to coming around a corner and seeing the beady eyes, mousy faces and rather sinister fingers gripping a wall or a roof beam.
The one thing Bahla fortress lacks though is any sort of explanation about what it is you are seeing. They spent millions on restoration but stopped before the info-board phase.
Still, it was fun to get lost in the passageways and find low-doored jail cells, wells with linked troughs ready to be filled from the bucket, original wood carvings around the doorways and Arabic lettering picked out in alcoves.
It is a mighty citadel and we realised as we left that there was a whole other part that we never found our way into. At the base of the fort are the crumbling mud walls of an old village, long abandoned.
With the temperature pushing 37 degrees we walked back to yesterday’s restaurant for cool fruit juices. The friendly manager remembered us and had just what we needed. Again.. We could well understand why the author of our guidebook says he’s been going there for twenty years.
And on to Nizwa on a road that curled north to the mountains and then south through the plane. We passed a series of new housing developments all in characteristic Omani style. All are built with a high wall around them and have towers and castellations, like little fortresses. An Omani’s home is his castle.
Nizwa has its own massive fortress with a broad tower, two thirds of which is filled with earth so as to better absorb cannon fire. We didn’t bring our cannon so couldn’t put it to the test. And anyway we were going to another massive installation: Lulu’s hypermarket. Lulu’s is about the size of Wales and contains every possible item known to man except pork products. Though you can get turkey bacon. The three of us stuck together knowing that to split up could mean separation for several days. Philippa leapt giddily from one aisle to the next: “ooh cupcakes, and look at this green pistachio pudding, and let’s get that pink semolina”. The pink semolina incidentally turned out to be terrific. We spooned it with our sporks (thanks Helen!) along with a perfectly assembled Greek salad, numerous flatbreads, hummus and assorted fruit, which we ate in the green gardens of the Falaj Daris just outside Nizwa.
There is a falaj in a deep channel there all the year round, fed by a spring seventeen meters deep.
It’s a popular bathing spot and dads were sitting in it neck deep, splashing their kids in the way of dads and kids everywhere. It’s Friday -the weekend here – and families just out of the mosque were also picnicking on the grass in the shade of the trees.. Several of the women were wearing beautiful abayas in soft russet colours or deep blues. Those that walked by us made a point of smiling and saying hello.
We had another hour and a half or so of driving to do though, heading deeper into the Eastern Hajar. This was an area that decided to rebel against the previous Sultan in the 1950s.. He spent most of his time in Salalah almost a thousand kilometers to the south and the tribal leaders decided they’d look after themselves thanks. The Saudis decided this would be a good way to promote Wahhabism in Oman, and the Sultan asked the British for help. The RAF bombed a couple of villages and the rebellion foundered. The ruins of one of the lovely old mud brick villages is a tourist attraction now but we maintained a tactful distance.
In Birkat, the heart of the rebellion, we turned left and up a steep but beautifully engineered tarmac road towards the Sayt plateau. A little way up we were stopped at a Police post where the officer got bored with our inability to find exactly the registration papers he wanted. In any event, the main reason for the control point is to ensure people have four wheel drive, ready for the very steep ascent, but more dangerously, the brake-eating descent. It’s about thirty kilometers of really steep gradient. Our Toyota was up for it though and we swooped through pass after pass with the dark mountain ridges flowing out around us. Eventually we turned off onto a smaller road, which became, as they do, a single lane dirt track which dropped away to nothing at the edge.
After ten minutes on this the track ran out and we parked. Across the gorge from us, basking in the late afternoon sunshine was a collection of tiny dun coloured houses, one of which would be ours for the night.
Cliff House has been open for about eighteen months or so, at the bottom of this little village. We put a night’s worth of kit into a duffel bag and walked down into the gorge; at the bottom, a dry wadi feeding small terraces. We walked across it under a pomegranate tree.
Tom took the swaying wood-slat suspension bridge and we ascended the rocky steps in the other side to the village. It was silent. No-one came to meet us but we found our rooms and sat out on the terrace watching the afternoon fade.
After ten minutes or so teenager in a brown dishdasha and white hat appeared with a checking-in book. All the columns were in Arabic and he wasn’t sure of the translation but I wrote names and dates and times in various places which seemed to do the trick. He showed us into a palm-thatched terrace for coffee, gave us a big smile and was gone.
It’s a magical place, perched on the side of the gorge and it’s ours for the night. We can hear kids playing on the other side. But other than that there is hardly anyone about. We’ve been sitting on cushions watching the afternoon turn into evening. From the mosque across the gorge, the muezzin has called the faithful to prayer twice; his call echoing back and forth through the mountains for several seconds.
As it got dark, two boys brought us stainless steel pots of fish biriani, a salad, yoghurt and a split pomegranate. We ate where we sat.
Our rooms have thick stone walls, and roofs of wood poles and palm thatch. The gorge is quiet and at eight o’clock, it’s probably time for bed.